Charles Bukowski: an appreciation


I got up, went in, pulled down my pants, sat down, thought, fucking often has nothing to do with being “lovers” and fucking seldom has much to do with literature and literature has nothing to do with fucking except to write about it when more important things give way, and most literature is pretty fucking bad. — Charles Bukowski, “We Both Knew Him”


I was in the same room, space or vicinity as Charles Bukowski, who died last March of leukemia or some such, five times, total.

Charles Bukowski, c. 1983

Charles Bukowski, c. 1983

The first time I laid eyes on him, in the early spring I think of 72, somewhere in the hills up near Griffith Park, he was carrying a jug of red table wine and a bag of groceries, dinner-plus for himself and the woman he was then seeing, the publicity director of a record company that had flown me to L.A. to write up a weepy-sensitive singer/songwriter creep. The first thing I heard him say, handing her the groceries, opening the wine, was “Lucy, tonight I’m gonna bite off your ugly white insect of a clit.”

I could say now that I was impressed, a wide-eyed, slave-to-my-dick 26-year-old writeboy hearing it done “for real” (in “real time”) by a veteran dick-slave poet, but I wasn’t; or that I thought he was an asshole, which I did, but I thought then that most people were assholes. What I thought was, Gee, how premeditated. He’d obviously been saving and savoring the line all day. (The only other person I’d met who spoke in banner headlines was Patti Smith.)

I hadn’t read a word by the man at the time, but in retrospect I can see it was all there — a goldmine of lit-crit etcetera: the grandiloquent second-person hostility; master use of the unvarnished raw; the moment’s utterance crystallized in lucite (jello) forever; the merger of “high” (image, structure, intent) and “low”; the here-I-come-I’m-Bukowski (to the tune of “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees”) leitmotif and calling card; the downscale populism (not everyone a king/queen but every person — especially those in “relationships” — a chump); the inseparable themes of anguish-in-pleasure, pleasure-inanguish; the highly mannered, if “simplified,” caste (gender, class) rituals; the (perhaps ingenuous) lead-with-your-chin insistence on trouble; the live-as-you-write/write-as-you-live chalkboard equation (with chalk strokes a-grating); the matchless clarity of expression.

All there for sure, but mostly I thought, What a silly old man. Later that night, after we’d finished the wine and gone on to beer, he announced: “Now I’m gonna watch TV on purpose for the first time.” He’d been in the same room with it on, he said, but never really paid attention. Lucy had a brand new many-inch Panasonic.

First thing on was an episode of Cannon with William Conrad undercover as a trucker. When the of beached whale showed some mettle in subduing a runaway 18-wheeler, Bukowski poured on the sarcasm: “What a man!” At hour’s end, after tubbo blew his second shot at a frowzy old flame: “You’re better off without her.” Next up, right-wing talk beast George Putnam, whom Buk let really have it: “Go ahead — pick on the poor goddam Commies.” Around 1:00 or 2:00, when the film started skipping on I Shot Jesse James with John Ireland (was the projectionist asleep?): “See! — they haven’t got the technology down yet. ” A funny old blustery guy. He reminded me of my grandmother talking to and at the family’s first TV in 1950, but more blustery. Four years later I went to the fights with him.

If you felt like it, it wouldn’t be too big a cheat to divide Bukowski’s published works into three basic categories: poems, novels, short stories. I mean anybody's writing could be split that way — big deal — anybody with substantial stacks of each, but with Mr. B the distinctions were matters of more than formal deviation. Different types of work meant vastly different ways of working.

The poems were essentially all written in one sitting, a few at a time — day, night — whatever. A verbatim record of what he was then and there thinking, beer at his side, pecking away. At the opposite end are the novels, representing commitment to the long haul, willful acts of episodic fiction over several months at least (with life as ongoingly lived filtered out, kept at bay, not directly intruding). The stories, requiring multiple (or at least more prolonged) unit sittings, fall between quick fix and long haul, closer to the former in scale and duration of narrative (usually a single experience), to the latter in compositional import and fuss. Neither fish nor fowl, they tend to be the glibbest of his outings, though never as glib as — and always more real, more alive, than — the stories of Raymond Carver, f rinstance.

The poems, at best, are the high point of his art. At worst (and a lot, possibly even most, of his published verse is toss-off and filler), they’re still never as bad, never make you wince a tenth as much, as the average off poem by a John Ashberry, a John Berryman, a Stephen Spender. If anything, they’re a deconstruction of all that, never aspiring to heights of “poetic” ado, stretching for metaphoric interlock, burdening sight lines with the slop of transcendence or arcania or even wit for wit sake. Or if not never, almost.

Bukowski the poet speaks quite like a normal human being, or a normal ornery old fuck with a standard vocabulary and an axe to grind. His poetic scribblings read easy, which is to say they read like prose, because virtually they are — prose with a high count of white space, a minimum of fat. (The opposite of Jack Kerouac, whose most poetic moments are in his designated prose, Bukowski’s finest prose is in his poems.) This is poetry at its least daunting, about which Lester Bangs once wrote, “He says things that are actually not that easy to say, in speech or in print, but especially in print — it’s not the tradition. But once said, because it all reads so easy, it’s as though they’ve always been said — they smell universal.”

The Ring Record Book says 8/7/76, so that’s the date it was: Danny “Little Red” Lopez vs. Art Hafey, L.A. Forum. Elimination match for the WBC featherweight title. Winner gets a shot at champion David “Poison” Kotey in Ghana. I had a couple tickets, so I called Bukowski. Sure, why not, it’s free, I’m driving, he’ll go.

At his place on Carlton Way in Hollywood I got to see the “setup.” How the Great Writer writes. In his typewriter, some old black manual, sat an unfinished page, prose, single-spaced. “Not double? There’s no room for corrections.”

“No corrections. What I write is perfect.” On the floor beside his desk were many days’/nights’ worth of empty beers; on the wall, a huge spider web. When I try to read the prose, “Here, look at this” — he hands me a scrapbook.

Page after page of women’s photos, many of them captioned. “You get older, you think it might get easier, it doesn’t. The hangovers get tougher, the heartache gets tougher.” He directs me to a recent entry, a posed pic of a leggy blond, younger than me, with the inscription “Whoa, sailor!” “She tore my guts out.” A brief pause. “They all do.”

In the car I unbag the six-pack I bought for the occasion, hand him a Lucky Lager. “Lucky! What piss.” He tilts the bottle at an outlandish angle, more vertical than Dizzy Gillespie’s custom-bent trumpet, downs half of it. “The things they tell you. Shit. She had a cunt the size of this window...” — he leans out, doesn’t finish the thought. “Whudda you think of James M. Cain?” I ask, apropos of everything and nothing. “Cain? Listen, kid, you should be reading Dostoyevski. Knut Hamsun. At least Celine.” He finished his Lucky, slammed it behind the seat — smash — I hand him another.

During prelims, this gruff muh-fuh showed a decided compassion for losers — “C’mon ref, stop it, the kid’s helpless” — very touching, actually. When I noted there were no heavyweights on the bill, nobody in fact above welterweight, he grumbled, “Heavyweights are just big salamis,” a characterization I’ll never forget. Before the main event had started, many beers were consumed by us both.

Against journeyman Hafey (from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia), the on-again/off-again Lopez had the advantage in height, reach, punch, aggressiveness and savvy. And, though it really wasn’t tested, heart as well. Hafey showed none. All he did was stand up and get pounded round after round, never getting inside Lopez’s reach, never really trying. “C’mon, Hafey,” yelled Bukowski more than once, “make believe he’s your mother-in-law.” The advice unheeded, Hafey was TKOed in 7. “Boxing is the last bastion of courage,” commented his advisor. You bet.

THE USES AND ABUSES OF BUKOWSKI — In 1987, spending a week with Roger Hedgecock on a dumb piece for this sheet, I decided at one point to spring some Bukowski on him, see how he’d react. Like here was this guy ranting about American illiteracy and how we gotta keep current with our arts and such B.S., a public figure one of whose frigging poses was I-read-therefore-1 -am, and he hadn’t read Bukowski, hadn’t even heard of him. This American author translated into 17 languages — an icon in Europe but a mere cult figure in the goddam U!S!A! —- deserving therefore of elevation to who knows what — right up Roger’s alley. And I also figured, well, the content of Bukowski might — heh heh — be to his liking. Give him a treat. He’s a two-fisted reader, he can handle a novel; I’ll get him a novel.

Of the four Bukowski novels then in print, Post Office and Factotum seemed a tad too working-class for Roger — they had their sex scenes, but the sex scenes weren’t foreground, lousy jobs were — leaving Women and Ham on Rye. The former, the format of which is I fucked this one, then I fucked that one, then I fucked this other one, then I— you get the picture — is, truly, honestly, a not-half-bad grocery list of weeny wettings, one of the few novels that is virtually nothing but that flat-out works. The latter novel, probably Bukowski’s greatest, his closest to a minor masterpiece, and one of the great ’30s/’40s L.A. novels (set then, written at the turn of the ’80s), is a stroll down the memory lane of worthless adolescence — bad skin in high school — very bad skin, the remnants of which (see any photo) were still with him, the rationale, if he needed one, for later needing/wanting to fuck ’em all (bad skin entitles you) — which seemed a little close to home in the case of one ex-mayor — would he think I was mocking?

So I picked up a copy of Women and gave it to him the night of this rock trivia board game we were playing to round out my piece. He flips a page, fixes eyes on a cussword or two, mock-smiles, lays it down beside the salsa, uses it as a deck for corn chips. In ten minutes the cover has three large irregular grease stains. His wife walks in, what’s this? — the title intrigues her — “Oh, he’s one of our great unsung authors. When I’m done you can....” She opens and studies it. Her eyes goggle. Drops it back on the table, exits. Mr. Reverence-for-Lit resumes greasing. By game’s end there’s more grease than cover.

gunned down outside the Seaside Motel

I stand looking at the live lobster in a fishshop on the Redondo

Beach pier the redhead gone to torture other males

it’s raining again it’s raining again and again som

etimes I think of Bogart and I don’t like Bogart an

y more kuv stuff mox out — when you get a little mon

ey in the bank you can write down anything on the p

age call it Art and pull the chain gunned down in a

fishmarket the lobsters you see they get caught lik

e we get caught.

—“Kuv Stuff Mox Out”

Many drunks have written and many have written drunk and many, drunk, have written from and about their drinking or tried to (you try it: ’s harder’n hell), but few, ever, have pulled off the likes of Bukowski’s “Kuv Stuff Mox Out” — wow. His greatest single work? Close. A classic. Not the cheesy reconstructed/reconditioned content and “phenomenology” of the drunk state, of an afternoon’s (night’s) drinking, but a sharp-eyed/dull-eyed/no-eyed blank-slate transcript of the cheesy, bleary details, during, present tense, real time, real writer's time, at the typewriter: write, don’t stop, fill page — reach right margin, carriage return, no hyphen — continue until you lose consciousness or interest. From before he had a machine with auto-return....

And yet Barfly, shit.

If at the time of its release in book form you counted the screenplay to Barfly, the film before which Bukowski was STILL a well-kept secret in his own town, his own country, as a novel, which in length and sequentiality it kind of is, it would probably have rated no higher than his worst or second worst (either better than Factotum — slightly — or not even). Three days or whatever in the life of a neighborhood bar — wheel out the clichés...flog ’em till they drop...draw outlines, heavy outlines, ’round everything and everybody...from effortless quasi-natural to ponderous fake...see Spot puke. Better than Days of Wine and Roses, certainly “darker” than Cheers, but what isn’t?

Hey. Chances are good — likely—certain — Kerouac will soon be known to the gen’ral public as a cardboard lobby card to the crummy movie scheduled to be filmed from On the Road, only he’s long dead, there’s not much he can do about it. Bukowski was not only alive for Barfly, he wrote the damn thing. And not only did he write it, given all latitude and encouragement to write anything he fucking wanted, HE had final cut on the script as shot...fuggit.

dead fish, dead ladies, dead wars,

it does seem a miracle to see anybody alive

and now somebody on the radio is playing

a guitar very slowly and I think, yes,

he too: his fingers, his hands, his mind,

and his music goes on but it is very still

it is very quiet, and I am tired.

—“I Thought of Ships, of Armies Hanging On” (early 70s)

a woman told a man

when he got off a plane

that I was dead.

a magazine printed

the fact that I was dead

and somebody else said

that they’d heard that I

was dead, and then somebody

wrote an article and said

our Rimbaud our Villon is

dead, at the same time an old

drinking buddy published

a piece stating that I

could no longer write, a

real Judas job. they can’t

wait for me to go, these


—“Up Your Yellow River” (mid ’70s)

now Death is a plant growing in my mind

not much to hang on to in this early morning growling.

— “Supposedly Famous” (mid ’80s)

what bargains we have made

we have



as the dogs of the hours

close in


can be taken

from us

but our lives.

—“Victory” (late ’80s)

my typewriter is



and I am reduced to bird watching.

—“8 Count” (early ’90s)

A repetitive guy, this Bukowski, but one theme he really took to task — pushed to the limit—fuck the limit — was death. Mortality. His own in tandem with others’, everyone’s, but especially his own — the death of his ass — and the loss of his handle on writing. So often did he rehearse this biz that by the actual end, shoot, years and years before the end, it read like almost, well, a celebration of sorts, a somewhat hollow (an increasingly hollow) before-the-fact commemoration. As meat for litrachoor, for the unit poem anyway, he’d pretty much used it up.

(One thing you don’t find much of in his late poems is present-tense relational anguish — current reference to anyone tearing his guts out. After years of women, women, women as “collaborators” in his art, suddenly they’re absent from any reasonably full-tilt foreground play. As retold ancient history, sure, there’s still enough of that stuff, but nothing with Linda, his 20-years-younger second wife, as sourcepoint. He writes not insultingly of her affection for Meher Baba, speaks of turning down the radio—no problem—’cause she’s having her period. Talks pleasantly about buying her a car. Is it credible that, domestically at least, he’d become less of a crank/cuss/motherfucker? “Serenity” had somehow kicked in? Or/and he simply chose not to alienate the one person he trusted to stick around till his last syllable of supported time? Dunno; dunno; dunno.)

The front-page obit in the LA. Times, a paper he never cared for, read, “Charles Bukowski Dies; Poet of L.A.’s Low-Life.” Dp something like Barfly— and “go Hollywood” — what can you expect? And the Hollywood rap is not, heck, ill-taken. Might’ve been if he hadn’t followed the movie with a novel about its making, Hollywood, easily his shallowest, breeziest, least interesting. A typical (really) piece of tinseltown fluff. (Apprentice writers from Squodunk come closer to “nailing” the subject.) Hang out with Sean Penn and Madonna, fine, but this book was sad to see.

After he was dead a couple minutes, his final novel, Pulp, was issued. In it, he encounters Lady Death, who hires him to find a not-yet-dead Louis-Ferdinand Celine. She’s a good broad, though, and finally when it’s his turn he can almost dig it. Must’ve known he was dying when he wrote it, and the last sentence ends: “and the blaze and the blare of yellow swept over and enveloped me.” That’s nice, I like it — yellow is my favorite color.

So while I’m working on this piece — life is funny— I find myself in one of his poems. “The Jackals,” in The Last Night of the Earth Poems, p. 312 — you could look it up. Nobody leaves him alone — he wrote lots of those — and in this one three people won’t leave him alone, and he has me down as one of them. Doesn’t name me but it’s me. Written somewhere in the late ’80s.

It was at a screening for these videos he did for French TV with the man who directed Barfly, Barbet Schroeder. Little three-minute bursts, talking, reading, fighting with Linda, good stuff actually. The whole thing fit on two cassettes; you should rent them. Before they ran ’em Bukowski was there, we got in a conversation. And it was a conversation, back and forth, the closest I ever came to such with the guy—normal blah blah — until at one point he had enough and told me, “Give me air to breathe.” Good enough.

So he goes home, how long could he have waited to put it down, the dialogue, a day, two days, a week — longer than that, why bother? — and how could he, the master of verbatim, the quick fixer, get it wrong? — but he gets it wrong. The words spoken. First of all, he gets the ending wrong, not “air to breathe” — a damn good line — but instead “get the fuck away from me.” How generic. Then he has me pitch for a shitty mag I was then writing for — Spin — saying I said, “it’s going to be better than Rolling Stone,” which I never would’ve said, ha, like Woman s Day was better than Rolling Stone, the Pacific Beach Pennysaver was better than Rolling Stone, anything was better than Rolling Stone, but Spin, then as now, was no bargain. What I said was this idiot, this young jerk, the trendy foppish son of Bob Guccione, had this horrible mag that was paying good money, and they wanted me to interview Bukowski, but only if he would also interview me— a thousand bucks apiece, just let the tape run — to which he said, “Sounds good to me” (not “I’ll let you know”).

That was only a small piece of the encounter. He remembered me without my having to say (as misquoted) “remember me?” — he looked at me and thought and said, “Lucy, right?” and then asked about Lucy. She was kind of a bag lady now, I told him, in a halfway house in New York for manic depressives. “That’s too bad,” he said, “she was one of the good ones.” “After you dumped her,” I said, “she told me, ‘I wouldn’t give him the ice in winter.’ ” “That’s a great line! I’m gonna use it.” He remembered Art Hafey.

In the poem he gets pissed at me for a piece I wrote about our trip to the fights in which I also mentioned him. Says I “attacked” him. Mostly I just quoted him — affectionately — as he jabbered away, and he did jabber, I’m sure we both jabbered. At the time, the next time I saw him, he merely complained that I’d confused boxing and horse racing (“Keep it up, eventually you’ll get it right, kid”), but that’s okay, you remember old things the way you wanna remember.

There’s more he gets wrong from the time of the screening, including the letter I sent later that night (in which I told him in all sincerity, all humility, that I thought of him as a brother), but that doesn’t bother me, nor my being a generic prop for his obsession with privacy (all exhibitionists need it), an easy trigger for his paranoia and self-loathing, what bothers me is his fucking up the verbatim. Missing—avoiding— the true specificity.

So the poems are not only prose, gosh, they’re fiction. Fuck me stupid, but that feels like a letdown.

And I can’t find, now that I’ve read everything, any use anywhere of “ice in winter.”

IN THE END, let Bukowski be this: a means, a standard, for measuring our own orneriness, our trashy fatality, our acceptance of our own weary detritus, our big stink. Who, in any end, could strive or not strive for more than that?

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